Shaped By Tragedy, Justin Lower Plays For His Angels
Heartbreak has surrounded Justin Lower for most of his life.
At the 2018 Web.com Tour Championship, Lower was one putt away from earning his PGA Tour card, but he failed to hole an 8-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole and missed his card by $490. His good friend Jim Knous earned the final 25th spot via the Web.com Tour Finals.
“But it was nothing but positives to take away from it,” Lower reflected. “Honestly, I knew what it meant. The difference between a year back here (on the Web.com Tour) and a (PGA Tour) card, life could be much worse.”
Things were once much worse for Lower. Especially on March 26, 2005.
• • •
As a child, being dropped off at the golf course over the weekend or on a summer day from sunup to sundown can be a dream come true. Moving from the practice range to the putting green with ease, before grabbing lunch and playing a few holes. Not a worry in the world.
No child believes that drop-off will be the last time they see their family members alive.
It was March 26, 2005 – the day before Easter – on a 60-degree spring day in Canal Fulton, Ohio.
Justin, then 15, and his 10-year-old brother, Chris, had just finished their bowling league earlier that morning. “He was a good bowler,” Justin recalled.
At 10:36 a.m. – “It’s the time I saw when I got out of the car, and it just stands out in my mind,” Justin said – his father, Tim, and Chris dropped him off at Lyons Den Golf Club. Justin distinctly remembers his dad saying he would pick him up around 5:30 or 6 p.m.
The 1997 Ford station wagon pulling away was the last time Justin saw his father and brother.
As the sun crept low late that afternoon, Justin and course owner Andy Lyons stood around waiting. Lyons became concerned. Finally, Justin’s mother, Debbie, called Justin. “She knew something wasn’t right,” Justin said. “Just that mother’s intuition, I guess.”
Debbie picked Justin up and headed home, thinking she and Tim had miscommunicated.
That wasn’t the case.
“My mom got a phone call from the last known place (the American Legion) he was at,” Justin said, “and they said that there was a car wreck on the road from Marshallville, Ohio, where he was, to Canal Fulton, where I grew up. They said there was a single-car accident and my mom knew instantly right then it was them.”
Tim and Chris had been coming in and out all day from the American Legion in Marshallville. Tim’s job that day was digging graves at a nearby cemetery.
When Justin and Debbie arrived at the scene, the first thing they saw was the Ford station wagon flipped upside-down.
“I really don’t know how to describe it,” Justin said.
The car had veered off course, Tim overcorrected and the car crashed into a utility pole, near where Chris had been seated. Chris died on impact and Tim shortly thereafter. Neither was wearing a seatbelt.
Justin later learned that Tim had been driving more than 80 mph in a 55 mph zone and his blood-alcohol content was .23 – nearly three times the legal limit.
Details for Justin remain vivid and precise, even 14 years later. The police cars. The ambulance. The flashing lights. His mother being inconsolable. “It was a pretty unreal scene,” Justin said. “Her husband and her youngest child were in that car accident.”
He later had dreams. Their frequency diminished with time but the unwelcome mixtures of memory and fantasy creeped into the stillness of his nights. “There were a few instances where (I dreamed) I was in the car with them,” Justin said. “It’s strictly imagination, but I wake up right before the crash happens. That has happened four or five times. I don’t know if it’s a way of coping with it or what, but it’s a rough one to wake up from. I wake up in a panic and a sweat. I guess it’s just kind of part of it.”
“ … it was just a very unreal situation. I was just trying to think of ways it couldn’t be true.” – Justin Lower
From the accident scene, Justin called his maternal grandfather, who arrived to try to console Debbie as much possible. Tim’s dad came from the other direction and joined the family.
“I just remember being in the car, and it was just a very unreal situation,” Justin said. “I was just trying to think of ways it couldn’t be true.”
He found out a lot about his dad that day. Tim’s drinking hadn’t been a one-off occurrence. He had a problem.
Debbie knew. Tim’s family knew. Not the kids.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 88,000 deaths occur each year in alcohol-related accidents. Excessive drinking is responsible for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years.
“He was a great person. He was a great dad,” Justin said. “He didn’t want Chris or me to know about it, but unfortunately it went the other direction there.”
Justin, now 29, limits himself to one or two drinks when he goes out. He remains aware of alcohol’s potentially devastating effect.
“It is a disease and it affects a lot of people,” Justin said. “I just hope people know the circumstances of it because it can be very taxing on any relationship. … I know the consequences.”
Justin remembers playing golf a few days before the funerals because his mom needed him to be out of the house. He played by himself.
About two months later, playing in one-day tournament before family and friends, Justin hit every fairway and green in regulation, shot 64 and won by seven strokes
Justin knew he had two angels with him that day.
• • •
Children’s lives are bifurcated by trauma. Everything falls either before or after. After for Justin was golf. It was the only thing he wanted to do. His grades slipped. And so did all his hopes of a scholarship to a big-time golf school.
In the spring of his senior year of high school, he reached out to Ken Hyland, the golf coach at Malone University. The university is in Canton, just 15 miles from Canal Fulton.
The school turned out to be the perfect fit for him. He was in the starting lineup his freshman year, although he admits to not living up to his potential in his first two seasons.
In his junior year, something clicked. Justin won the Jack Nicklaus Award as the NAIA player of the year after a season that included six victories. He also received the Arnold Palmer Award as national championship medalist. And in his senior season he received the David Toms Award for overcoming adversity.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Justin said of attending Malone.
After graduating from Malone in 2011, Justin turned pro but struggled. He didn’t immediately try PGA Tour Q-School, deciding instead to trek down to Orlando, Fla., to play on the NGA Tour. He earned conditional status on the Web.com Tour in 2013, but bounced on and off that tour until 2018.
Justin played in 13 Web.com Tour events last year, making 12 cuts and earning more than $125,000, which gave him full-time status for 2019.
“I’ve learned that I could basically play with anybody,” Justin said. “I feel like it’s just a matter of taking a step back in certain situations and reassessing and taking my time a bit more.”
“He’s so goal-oriented,” said Hyland. “His maturity is through the roof. He understands he can’t birdie every hole. … He’s picked up on that he has to be in the present and he can’t look back to the past and he can’t look to the future.”
• • •
When asked recently how proud his father and brother would be of him now, he could barely answer, so choked was he with emotion. No one had asked him that question before.
“I think my dad would be so proud,” Justin said.
His brother wasn’t into golf. He was more of a history buff, but Justin believes if Chris were alive he would have been caddying for him on the Web.com Tour’s Latin American swing, which concludes this week in Panama.
“He would have loved traveling the world with me,” Justin said. “I just know it.
“But they would definitely be proud.”
Top photo: Justin Lower just missed earning his PGA Tour card at the 2018 Web.com Tour Championship. Photo: Michael Cohen, Getty Images
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